Janson shook his head. “I’m just doing my job, Thomas. I want this cure more than anyone else. Except for you, maybe, before we took away your memories.”
“Just go,” Thomas said.
“I hope you’ll come,” Janson replied. “You have a chance to do great things. I’m sorry for our differences. But Thomas, you need to hurry. Time is running out.”
“I’ll think about it.” Thomas forced himself to say it again. It made him sick to pacify the Rat Man, but it was the only thing he could think to say to buy himself time. And there was the possibility that if he didn’t stall Janson, he could end up like Red Shirt—shot down by this cop machine hovering a few feet in front of him.
Janson smiled. “That’s all I can ask for. I hope to see you here.”
The screen blacked out and the panel closed; then the cop machine rose into the air and flew away, its hum slowly fading. Thomas watched until it disappeared around a corner. When it was gone, his eyes fell upon the dead man. He quickly looked away—that was the last thing he wanted to see.
“There he is!”
He whipped his head around to see Minho running down the sidewalk toward him, Brenda and Jorge close behind. Thomas had never been so happy to see anyone.
Minho pulled up short when he saw Red Shirt in a heap on the ground. “Holy … What happened to him?” He turned his attention to Thomas. “And you? You okay? Did you do that?”
Absurdly, Thomas felt like laughing. “Yeah, I pulled out my machine gun and blasted him to tiny bits.”
Minho’s face showed that he didn’t appreciate the sarcasm, but Brenda spoke before he could come up with a retort.
“Who killed him?”
Thomas pointed at the sky. “One of those cop machines. Flew in here, shot him to death, then next thing I know the Rat Man appears on a screen. He tried to convince me that I need to go back to WICKED.”
“Dude,” Minho said, “you can’t even—”
“Give me some credit!” Thomas yelled. “There’s no way I’d go back, but maybe them needing me so much could help us at some point. What we should worry about is Newt. Janson thinks that Newt’s succumbing to the Flare a lot faster than average. We have to go check on him.”
“He really said that?”
“Yeah.” Thomas felt bad for blowing up at his friend. “And I believe him on this. You saw how Newt’s been acting.”
Minho stared at Thomas, his eyes filled with pain. It hit Thomas that Minho had known Newt for two years longer than he had. So much more time to grow close.
“We better check on him somehow,” Thomas repeated. “Do something for him.”
Minho just nodded and looked away. Thomas was tempted to pull Newt’s note out of his pocket and read it right then and there, but he’d promised he’d wait until he knew for sure the time was right.
“It’s getting late,” Brenda said. “And they don’t let people in and out of the city at night—it’s hard enough to keep things under control during the day.”
Thomas noticed for the first time that the light was beginning to fade, the sky above the buildings taking on an orange hue.
Jorge, who’d been quiet until then, spoke up. “That’s the least of our problems. Something weird’s going on around this place, muchachos.”
“What do you mean?” Thomas asked.
“All the people seem to have vanished in the last half hour, and the few I’ve seen don’t look right.”
“That scene at the coffee shop did send everyone scattering,” Brenda pointed out.
Jorge shrugged. “I don’t know. This city is just giving me the creeps, hermana. Like it’s alive and waiting to unleash something really nasty.”
A strange unease crawled up Thomas’s spine and he turned his focus back to Newt. “Can we get out there if we hurry? Or can we break out?”
“We can try,” Brenda said. “Better hope we can find a cab, though—we’re on the other side of the city from where we came in.”
“Let’s try it,” Thomas offered.
They took off down the street, but the look on Minho’s face wasn’t good. Thomas sure hoped it wasn’t a sign of bad things to come.
They walked for an hour and didn’t see a single car, much less a cab. They ran into only a few scattered people, and cop machines let out their eerie hum as they flew by at random. Every few minutes they’d hear a sound in the distance that brought memories of the Scorch back to Thomas—someone talking too loudly, a scream, an odd laugh. As the light faded to darkness, he began to feel more and more spooked.
Finally Brenda stopped and faced the rest of them. “We’ll have to wait till tomorrow,” she announced. “We’re not going to find transportation tonight and we’re too far to walk. We need to sleep so we’ll be fresh in the morning.”
Thomas hated to admit it, but she was right.
“There’s gotta be a way to get out there,” Minho countered.
Jorge squeezed his shoulder. “It’s useless, hermano. The airport’s at least ten miles from here. And by the looks of this town we’d get mugged or shot or beaten to death on the way. Brenda’s right—better to rest up and go help him tomorrow.”
Thomas could tell Minho wanted to be his usual defiant self, but he gave in without arguing. Jorge made too much sense. They were in a huge city, at night, completely out of their element.
“Are we close to our motel?” Thomas asked. He told himself that Newt could make it through one more night alone.
Jorge pointed to his left. “Just a few blocks.”
They headed in that direction.
They were a block away when Jorge pulled up short, holding one hand in the air and putting a finger to his lips with the other. Thomas stopped dead in his tracks, alarm suddenly tingling through his nerves.
“What?” Minho whispered.
Jorge turned in a slow circle, scanning the area around them, and Thomas did the same, wondering what had suddenly made the older man so apprehensive. Darkness had completely fallen, and the few streetlights they passed barely put a dent in it. The world Thomas could see seemed made of shadows, and he imagined horrible things hiding behind every one of them.
“What?” Minho whispered again.
“I keep thinking I hear something right behind us,” Jorge replied. “Whispering. Anyone else—”
“There!” Brenda shouted, her voice like a crack of thunder in the silence. “Did you see that?” She was pointing off to her left.
Thomas strained to look but saw nothing. The streets were empty as far as he could tell.
“Someone was just coming out from behind that building, then jumped back. I swear I saw it.”
“Hey!” Minho yelled. “Who’s over there?”
“Are you crazy?” Thomas whispered. “Let’s get inside the motel!”
“Slim it, dude. If they wanted to shoot us or something, don’t you think they would’ve done it by now?”
Thomas just sighed in exasperation. He didn’t like the feel of this at all.
“I should’ve said something when I first heard it,” Jorge said.
“Maybe it’s nothing,” Brenda responded. “And if it is, standing around won’t help. Let’s just get out of here.”
“Hey!” Minho yelled again, making Thomas jump. “Hey, you! Who’s over there?”
Thomas smacked him on the shoulder. “Seriously, would you stop that?”
His friend ignored him. “Come out and show yourself!”
Whoever it was didn’t respond. Minho moved like he was going to walk across the street and take a look, but Thomas grabbed him by the arm.
“No way. Worst idea in history. It’s dark, it could be a trap, it could be a lot of terrible things. Let’s just get some sleep and keep a better eye out tomorrow.”
Minho didn’t put up much of an argument. “Fine. Be a wuss. But I get one of the beds tonight.”
And with that they went up to their room. It took forever for Thomas to fall asleep, his mind spinning with the possibilities of who might be following them. But no matter where his thoughts wandered, they always came back to Teresa and the others. Where were they? Could that have been Teresa out on the street, spying on them? Or had it been Gally and the Right Arm?
And Thomas hated that they’d had no choice but to wait a night before checking on Newt. What if something had happened to him?
Finally his mind slowed, the questions faded away, and he fell asleep.
The next morning, Thomas was surprised at how rested he felt. He’d tossed and turned all night, it seemed, but at some point he must have gotten some deep and recharging sleep. After a long, hot shower and breakfast out of a vending machine, he was ready to face the day.
He and the others left the motel around eight o’clock in the morning, wondering what they’d find in the city on their way to check on Newt. They saw some people here and there, but far fewer than they’d seen during the busy hours of the day before. And Thomas didn’t notice any strange noises like the ones they’d heard the previous night during their long walk.
“Something’s up, I’m tellin’ ya,” Jorge said as they made their way down the street in search of a cab. “There should be more folks out and about.”
Thomas observed the few pedestrians around him. None of them would look him in the eye—everyone kept their head down, often with one hand holding their surgical mask to their face as if afraid that a sudden wind might blow it off. And they walked with a hurried, frantic gait, almost jumping out of the way when another person got too close. He noticed a woman studying a poster about the Flare just like the one he’d read the day before while being escorted by Red Shirt. It brought to mind that memory he hadn’t been able to grasp—it was going to drive him crazy.
“Let’s hurry and get to the shuck airport,” Minho muttered. “This place is giving me the creeps.”
“We should probably go up that way,” Brenda said, pointing. “There have to be cabs around those business offices.”
They crossed the street and headed down a narrower one that passed what looked like an empty lot on one side and an old, dilapidated building on the other.
Minho leaned into Thomas and half whispered, “Dude, I’m a little shucked in the head right now. I’m scared of what we’re gonna find with Newt.”
Thomas was scared, too, but didn’t admit it. “Don’t worry. I’m sure he’s fine for now.”
“Good that. And the cure for the Flare’s gonna fly out of your butt any second.”
“Who knows, maybe it will. Might smell funny, though.” His friend didn’t seem to think that was very humorous. “Look, we can’t do anything until we get there and see him.” Thomas hated sounding so insensitive, but things were hard enough—they couldn’t assume the worst.
“Thanks for the pep talk.”